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Bridging the Gap Between Agile Development and UX Design

Why is there still such a divide between people who develop and people who design?

With communication apps like Slack and HipChat abounding, you’d think it would be a breeze to keep teams talking. Shouldn’t we all know how to go about this with the success of methods like Design Thinking, Scrum, and Kanban?

Still, companies keep encountering communication gaps between teams, increased iteration cycles due to time lost in translation, and employees that feel disconnected from people whom they’re working with every week. The solution to this is not as easy as cramming multiple methodologies and tools together and telling employees to play nice with them; we must espouse the first tenet of the Agile Manifesto: Individuals and Interactions Over Processes and Tools.

Don’t get me wrong, many development and design teams have found enormous local success using Agile and design methodologies. Scrum and Kanban, for example, have empowered developers by stressing the importance of communication, transparency, and iterative experimentation. Meanwhile, design teams have found equal success using processes such as the UX cycle of “Identify, Design, Optimize, Validate” (IDOV) and Design Thinking, which both stress the importance of revisiting and refining ideas using feedback from key users and stakeholders.

Despite the fact that these methods all share the same appreciation for individuals and rapid iteration, trying to merge them together in one fell swoop always lands flat. Employees become inundated with new terminology and new expectations, which feels like more work on top of their existing responsibilities. Pair this perceived burden with a sense of dread at the grandeur of the proposed merge and you have a recipe for failure. How do we manage to overcome the departmental divide without instigating widespread reluctance and resistance? Start small, and make a deep humanistic impact.

We need to be Agile about our Agile. We need to acknowledge the power of the molecules that have facilitated the success of the processes we’ve come to love.

We need to focus on people interacting and communicating on individual and team levels, and we need to be ready to rapidly iterate on how we’re going about this. We need to start having more conversations between designers and developers about the capacity they have to start individually bridging the gaps. Some have suggested nominating a developer to be the UX lead of the dev team, who will always approach the code with the end user in mind. Others have suggested having a designer appointed to every development team on an ongoing basis. Still another approach is to have developers deliver a rough outline to the design team to further verify and refine. If you’re a product owner or scrum master and are feeling unsure about how to start, it’s a good idea to begin by talking to your teams and asking them what they think about the problem. Chances are, they’ll be excited to air the grievances they’ve likely spent hours considering over the course of their careers.

There are infinite approaches to this problem, and none of them are necessarily right or wrong because it comes down to how the individuals who comprise the teams feel they can all work best together. Why not take suggestions from each other? Maybe designers could adopt a more rapid approach by exposing and communicating designs that are still in progress, as developers do with in-progress features. Maybe UX researchers could focus on smaller subsets of their research to shorten cycle times. Or, developers could incorporate design thinking techniques into their module design to make it easier to deliver design changes quickly in the future. The details aren’t the key takeaway here, but rather the ethos of the approach. Every team, and therefore every company, is made up of individual people at its roots, so we must start by talking and iterating with individuals, and letting this communal sensibility organically spread to the rest of the organization.

Bridging the gap between design and development is uncharted territory right now, much like Agile and UX research were during their early phases. The key to the success of these philosophies has been focusing on rapid iteration through deeply valuing individuals and interactions, and only when those bricks were in place could processes like Scrum, Kanban, IDOV, and Design Thinking have evolved. So, while we may not be poised to come up with a new catchy name for some all-encompassing framework, we are certainly ready to start making palpable improvements by taking small and simple steps.

Why not get lunch with a designer you’re working with and ask about what kind of work they’re doing and how they’re doing it? Or maybe just swing by a development team’s room and see if you can sit with them and try to learn how they develop all those designs you’ve been working so hard on.

It may feel small, but it’s the individuals and the interactions that not only take the first pace-setting steps towards bridging the gap, but they also make work infinitely more meaningful and human.


About the author

Alexander Golin is a passionate musician, a die-hard city boy, an avid proponent of user-centric design, and an empathetic humanist, sometimes to a fault.

Seeking to hybridize his education, he double majored in Human Factors Engineering and Computer Science at Tufts University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in the Spring of 2017. He spent his college years as a leader in the Radio Broadcasting and DIY Concert Booking communities. He currently works as a Software Engineer at Pegasystems and is pursuing training as a Scrum Master and Agile Coach.